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The Fairy Tail Homes of Sumatra

The Fairy Tail Homes of Sumatra

I doubt anyone could travel through Sumatra and not be totally taken by the beauty of the spired roof houses (the “Rumah Bagonjong”) typical of  Minangkabau culture. These iconic looking long house homes have become a well known symbol of Indonesian heritage to the point that they are often mimicked in style by the architecture of Indonesian embassies around the globe.

Minang home decor is like no other. The constructions, with their prominently upswept gables, are mainly made of wood, ooze a sense of tradition and are forged by the capable hands of experienced carpenters. Some stand out more than others with brightly coloured carvings painstakingly maintained by their proud owners (the women of the household most of all).

It can be said that style of these dwellings give the impression that the buildings are somehow suspended in air, via invisible threads of some kind. It’s easy to keep gazing at them admiringly, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with the designs almost as if there were riddle to them somehow (I certainly felt that way anyway).

Solok is close to Padang on the centra western coast of Sumatra, map.

Solok is close to Padang on the central western coast of Sumatra ( licensed, Creative Commons )

The village of Solok, not far from the port town of Padang (west coast of Sumatra), is well known for its abundance in Minang style structures, some of which here are over sixty years old. Big houses, small houses, shops, schools, not many buildings in Solok fail to include the traditional features of Minang design. Some are plain with little adornment and are perhaps in need of a little attention but others are definitely well maintained.

Traditionally Minang houses are intended for large extended family groups just like the Long Houses found in other parts of South East Asia (Borneo in particular). However, in more recent times, elegant spire designs also feature in smaller homes not to mention government buildings too.

Minang Long House
Minang Long House with their prominently upswept gables, are mainly made of wood, ooze a sense of tradition and are forged by the capable hands of experienced carpenters.
Minang Longhouse in Solok Sumatra
Another Minang Longhouse in Solok, Sumatra

Riding past these homes on my motorbike I couldn’t help feeling as though I had been plunged into some sort of a fairy tale. “Hansel and Gretel must have happened in this part of the world” I remember thinking to myself   “…and no doubt the evil witch in the story lived around here, too”.

My curiosity got the better of me at one point, I simply had to find out what these homes looked like inside. I pulled over and parked in front of a larger Minang home where a lady sat on the porch just in front of the entrance. I used the politest half broken Bahasa I could come up with and asked if I might peer inside her home. To my astonishment, I was given kind nod and made welcome to take look.

Creecking floor boards, and dim lighting accompanied me through the entrance of the old home. As I lifted my gaze inside I found a beautifully kept “log cabin” style home with leather armchairs, pictures, hanging on walls,  mats and rugs. A kitchen at one end of the open plan space and individual sleeping compartments behind the living area. Everything seemed meticulously taken care of and gleaming with pride.

Minang house interior
…to my astonishment I was welcomed inside.

Kids rushed towards me from the kitchen to great with smiles and surprise. Another elderly laydy at the stove also smiled and watched me as I strolled around. It felt homely, warm and cosy.  It was beautiful, certainly a place I would have eagerly spent a night at.

Local society in western Sumatra is matriarchal meaning that it’s a mother’s name (blood line) that is passed to the children of a family. This has implications on inheritance laws, too. Minang houses are in fact passed from mother to daughter, from one generation to the next, almost like a dowry.

Minag style house in Solok, Sumatra
Minag style house in Solok, Sumatra

The costs involved in building a Rumah Bagonjong have increased over the years along with the price and availability of quality timber. Today a new Minang style home is no longer affordable for many locals in a rapidly developing Sumatra and Indonesian nation but there are still many old style homes to admire and perhaps even restore. Some have even been transformed into guest houses that offer lodging for the occasional tourist.

Of course I absolutely recommend a trip to Solok if you’re ever travelling through Sumatra. You will not be disappointed, it really is like being in a fairy tale.

Minang Style houses in Sumatra
Minang Style houses in Sumatra
Minang house and Biker
Minang house and Biker

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

Orangutan Hand Shake!

Orangutan Hand Shake!

A pause along a jungle path

As I heaved my muddy back pack onto my shoulders once more that morning in northern Sumatra I couldn’t help feel a sense of relife. Sure, my hike had challenged me with leaches, thick mud, heat and mosquitos but what had just happened was on an entirely new level and had sent my pulse into overdrive.

My hiking buddies and I had already marched in composed silence for a couple of hours that morning along the old logging trail that lead to the Bahorok river ahead. Each of us was absorbed by the slippery, mud caked path upon which every step had to be chosen wisely in order to avoid a grimy fall. The humming and the buzzing of insects all around us was as intense as ever and somewhere in the distance I remember the occasional howl of a lonely Gibbon.

Jungle treck
Jungle Hike

Suddenly, there was a sound of crushing undergrowth not too far in front of us. We froze as the rummaging got louder and closer. I felt the a surge of excitement and reached for my camera not really knowing what to expect. Our guide was stiff, a look of apprehension all over him, one arm raised in the air, hand clenched in a fist urging us all not to move.

Then, some forty metres or so on the path ahead, an adult female orangutang appeared from the bushes. She was perhaps four feet tall, apparently in good health with a long shiny orange coat of fur. She peered straight at us on the trail for a few intense seconds and then slowly started to approach unthreateningly, with a clear intent of joining our party.

Our guide remained still but gone was his sense of urgency. He knew this ape well and assured us, as it wobbled closer, that the animal had grown in a rehabilitation centre and had been fostered back into the wild some years ago. The orangutang had no fear of humans, he said and occasionally made an appearance on the tourist trodden trails.

The Drama

I barely had time to take off my rugsack hoping for a few minutes of rest when the ape was upon us and in a fraction of a second, before I could react, my left hand and arm were in her firm clasp.

Orangutang hand shake
…still finding it amusing at this point.

I felt calm to start off with as there seemed nothing to be alarmed about. I took this extraordinary encounter as a photo opportunity and asked others in the group to take some snaps with my camera. The ape’s touch felt soft and warm, not unlike the hand of a human. It was reassuring. My new primate friend seemed to pose willingly with me for pictures and even looked straight at the camera for more than just a few.

However, once I had satisfied myself with the shots, I began to feel uncomfortable with animal’s grip. I could see there was no sign from ape of relenting her clasp. I tried to pull free whilst keeping a smile but of course there was no chance to get out the animal’s hold. She was immensely stronger than I could possibly have imagined and her hand held tighter and tighter the more I fought. Now I was getting anxious, I felt threatened, breaking free was a matter of urgency, but I realised that the orangutang could easily overpower me and even snap a bone or bite should she choose to do so. Struggling was futile, there was no way i could win so I chose not to antagonise my captor any further and simply stood still.

The ape had me totally under her power and I looked around for support from my pals.  They all saw my concern and told me reiassuringly to remain calm. Someone reached for the contents of their backpack, pulled out banana and waved it in the air. That was what it took. My arm was released instantly with a dash by the ape to grab the prised ransom. I was free and spent a moment examining my arm. Just a bit sore, no damage, no bruising, all good.

Eyes of an Orangutang
Orangutang stares inquisitively

Lesson learned

So, please don’t even think about offering a hand, arm or limb to an ape. Apes have evolved to live on trees where they climb and swing from branches all day, we all know that. What we might not be aware of is that although they appear smaller than us, make no mistake, they’re immensly stronger than a human, more than you could immagine and once they have you in their grip there is no getting away … unless you have bananas that is.

Travellingstranger 2018 ©. All rights reserved.